Appetites: Kitchen biography gives fresh-baked insight to Abe Lincoln

Lincoln recipes
Author Rae Katherine Eighmey with her home-made gingerbread men Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 at MPR studios in St. Paul. The cookie recipe can be found in her new book "Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen" and at the bottom of this page.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Abraham Lincoln was born on this date 205 years ago. And while we know a lot about our 16th president's life, we haven't really thought much about what he ate.

Until now. Rae Katherine Eighmey, a food historian who lives in St. Paul, joined MPR News' Tom Crann to talk about her new book, "Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln's Life and Times."

Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

CRANN: We know so much about aspects of Lincoln's life -- being a rural attorney, becoming President, leading the nation through the Civil War. What made you want to explore his food history?

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EIGHMEY: Well, I'm a food historian and a lifelong cook. It just seemed like a natural question to explore -- how did food influence him? And, how could I use food to help tell the story of his life?

CRANN: What were some of his favorite things to eat?

EIGHMEY: Apples. He was a well-known apple eater. At one point he said, "I like apples because they agree with me." He was also documented eating oysters. He loved chicken fricassee and there was a recipe that Mary [Todd Lincoln] asked a White House cook to make when he was not eating during the Civil War. She wanted something that would tempt his appetite. He also loved corncakes, and it was said that he could eat [corn pancakes] as fast as two women could make them.

CRANN: How did you go about finding out just what he ate?

EIGHMEY: Fortunately, William Herndon, [Lincoln's] law partner has done a lot of primary research after Lincoln was assassinated, talking to everyone [who knew Lincoln] that he could contact. And, in those primary sources, I could read what those neighbors said that they ate as a community and some little bits about what he ate. And, in Springfield, Ill., there are the grocery records where [the Lincolns] charged foods. You could look up what they charged for at a couple of the stores, although they must have purchased things at several of the other 21 grocery stores in Springfield.

CRANN: You actually brought in one of the treats that Lincoln liked from childhood that actually played a role in the Lincoln-Douglas debates -- a gingerbread man -- that is a little puffier and larger than the flat cookies we see now (Find the recipe below).

EIGHMEY: That's exactly right. Lincoln used the image of a gingerbread man to diffuse an over-pompous Douglas who was heaping false praise on Lincoln during a debate. So, Lincoln called up this story from his childhood where he took out three gingerbread men that his mother had made out to his playmate, and the playmate said, "give me a man," so Abe shared one with him. Then he said, "give me another man, because there's nobody who loves gingerbread more than I do and gets so little of it." So, Abe used that as a parallel -- no one gets as much flattery as I do, and I don't know what to do with this.

CRANN: As you've been talking about it, I have tried [a gingerbread man], and I have to say that it is pretty sweet and pretty gingery, but it is almost more like a puffy dry cake than a flat cookie, right?

EIGHMEY: That's a good description. And, it's perfect to fit into a pants pocket out on the prairie.

CRANN: How did his culinary life evolve, going from a log cabin to the White House?

EIGHMEY: I came into it thinking he ate quite simply and then [his diet] became more sophisticated when he got to the White House. But, actually, Springfield in the 1840s and the 1850s was becoming a more sophisticated community. As the first steamboats, then the railroads, came in this river of food came into these more rural communities. So, in Springfield, they are eating things like oysters and pineapples.

CRANN: We think of the White House today as pretty elegant, there is a staff of chefs for state dinners with the finest cuisine. What was the food at the White House like back in the 1860s?

EIGHMEY: It is kind of in two schools. Mary Lincoln brought in a French chef. She served a very elegant dinner, for which she was criticized. But, there's this story, which I tell in the book, where one man just walked in off the street looking to talk to President Lincoln and walked in on him eating a plate of warmed-over baked beans for breakfast, which was a common breakfast food during that period of time.

CRANN: In the end what did you learn about Abraham Lincoln by studying his food and the food of his time?

EIGHMEY: I was able to find, I think, a much more human side of Lincoln. To be able to [imagine] him roaming through the house with his boys as they and the neighbor kids ran in and out to get treats that Mary made. And, exploring the Black Hawk War experience -- there are reminiscences of how he and his compatriots ate in the camps as they were fighting that war.

Getting the whole human side of him and the image of a man sitting down to a plate of dinner, whether it's in a cabin or the White House, helps humanize him and by having the recipes in the book that people can make in a modern kitchen, you can begin to touch that experience, too.

RECIPE: Abe Lincoln's Gingerbread Men

1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sorghum
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
3 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ginger
1/4 pound (1 stick) cold butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Pour the milk into a glass measuring cup. Add the sorghum and stir the two together. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the brown sugar, flour, baking soda and ginger. Slice the butter into small pieces and using a pastry cutter or two knives cut into the flour mixture until the mixture looks like cornmeal.

Add the milk and sorghum mixture and stir well with a fork or spoon. The dough should be like children's play-clay. If it is too sticky, add small amounts of flour (no more than 2 tablespoons) or refrigerate until it can be worked easily.

To make men about 4 inches high, break off a piece of dough a little larger than a golf ball. Place it on a counter or cutting board and roll it lightly under your palms forming a pencil-like piece of dough 12 inches long. Break off 4 inches and set aside. This will become the arms. Fold the remaining dough in half to from a narrow, upside down "v."

Grasp at the folded top, pinch together 1 inch down from the top and twist, forming the head and neck. Place the arm piece across the back under the head. Gently press to secure. Place on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake until men are lightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Watch closely as dough or batter with sorghum or molasses burns quickly.

Makes about 18 men 4-inches tall.